Size matters: The plight of the small shop

Vacant shop units on the main street. Over time, smaller towns have lost many of the functions previously found within them, including retail functions
Vacant shop units on the main street. Over time, smaller towns have lost many of the functions previously found within them, including retail functions

In what is becoming a clear case of only missing something when it’s gone, the fate of small shops across Ireland is becoming increasingly bleak

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12 September 2008 | 0

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Vacant shop units on the main street. Over time, smaller towns have lost many of the functions previously found within them, including retail functions

The proliferation of large out of town retail developments and the increased regulatory requirement placed on small operators are two leading factors in the disappearance of the small, independently owned shop. The impact this decline has on local and rural communities is a high price to pay for having massive retail developments located outside the local area.

Only recently has this begun to be recognised by the general public despite frequent warnings being sounded by groups representing various independent retailers such as RGDATA and the CSNA. Many purchasers of houses in estates in the various satellite towns have found that there is no shop within walking distance and equally people in small towns and villages have seen services that have existed in their communities for years suddenly closed down or withdrawn to a massive urban retail development, resulting in ghost town effect in many cases.

Ireland’s Retail Planning Guidelines for Local Authorities acknowledge the problem facing small shops: “Small towns and villages are now less self sufficient than 20 or 30 years ago. One result of this has been an increasing dependence on larger settlements for the provision of goods and services as well as for employment. Over time, smaller towns have lost many of the functions previously found within them, including retail functions.

“This process is cumulative. The closure of a single outlet may represent a general decline in local businesses in rural areas. Local economic self-sufficiency is weakened by this process and it forces those living in rural areas to rely increasingly on urban centres for goods and services.”

The guidelines also state that “where a planning authority can substantiate clearly the local importance of such shops in defined local centres, they should safeguard them in development plans, through appropriate land-use zoning.” But have local authorities achieved this in reality?

Conflicting interests pose a challenge for planners

Andrew Hind, president of the Irish Planning Institute, believes that the recognition of small shops and the intention to protect them is clearly described in the guidelines. “Generally local authorities are keen to protect local services and amenities where they can. I suspect that difficulties arise because sometimes large retail formats in the main towns have a far reaching effect. On the one hand the planning authorities are trying to deal with the demand for modern, large retail formats and counter balancing that with the need to protect local shops in areas more distant from the main towns. It’s in balancing that conflict where the local authorities face the challenge.”

He adds: “It is a principle of planning laws in this country that planning per se should not be seeking to interfere in free competition between businesses, but this is probably only up to a point because planning authorities are entitled to look at the impact of a new retail development on other retailers in their area. Getting that balance right for what people want, for what businesses want is very important.”

According to Hind, formulating practical policy measures that will help address the tension between the economic, commercial and the public pressure for new large scale retail formats and the need to ensure that all communities are well served and the need to address accessibility by car will continue to be a very difficult issue for planning authorities.

“There is a huge amount of red tape and legislation that is strangling small businesses in this country” says Tara Buckley, director general, RGDATA

“There is a huge amount of red tape and legislation that is strangling small businesses in this country” says Tara Buckley, director general, RGDATA

Competition and diversity is best for retailers and consumers

RGDATA, the representative organisation for independent family grocers in Ireland, welcomes the guidelines and the announcement by the Minister for the Environment that he intends to make compliance a legal requirement. “Having a good planning regime is extremely important.

The guidelines support vibrant towns and villages and they will certainly ensure that in the future local independent retailers can operate and compete with the bigger players,” says director general, Tara Buckley.

RGDATA says that it is very much in favour of competition and diversity of shops because it believes that where you have these two things there will be an environment that is best for the retailers and the consumers that live in that area. In terms of what government does in this area, RGDATA wants a level playing field. “We feel that there is plenty that government could be doing to ensure that Ireland continues to have strong, independent, locally owned shops in communities all over the country,” says Buckley.

“There is a huge amount of red tape and legislation that is strangling small businesses in this country. We have members who have been running small shops for a number of years and they are throwing in the towel because they say they have come to the end of their tethers in terms of the amount of regulation and compliance they have to come to terms with. Their businesses are becoming non viable because so much time and effort is put into dealing with red tape issues. These issues can range across a wide variety of areas from waste management to employment. Life has been made very difficult for small business operators,” she asserts.

Government paying lip service while closures accelerate

Vincent Jennings, chief executive officer of the CSNA (Convenience Stores & Newsagents Association) equally feels that the current retail environment is detrimentally impacting on local shops. “The pressure some of our members are coming under is horrific. In the last ten years the amount of closures has been extraordinary and worryingly in the last five years this has accelerated. What you will be left with in a few years time is a couple of hundred shops as opposed to 3,500 shops that we have at the moment.

“Shops such as these are the anchor points for a community. Small shops are incredibly important from a social point of view, they can frequently be the first place a person receives work experience; they can be the first place where messages and notices of interest to people in the local area can be displayed. This function is in addition to an economic function,” he adds.
Jennings is sceptical about the Government’s willingness to address the issue.

Small shops are incredibly important from a social point of view, they can frequently be the first place a person receives work experience; they can be the first place where messages and notices of interest to people in the local area can be displayed. This function is in addition to an economic function.

Small shops are incredibly important from a social point of view, they can frequently be the first place a person receives work experience; they can be the first place where messages and notices of interest to people in the local area can be displayed. This function is in addition to an economic function.

“I question whether the government does anything to support shops such as this other than pay it lip service. It is not going to be the case that they will make concessions to local communities. All this should be driven through the Department of Finance. There was an attempt to have an over the shop living allowance for people and these are the types of initiatives that should be looked at for people who are providing a service for a local community and there should be additional tax relief toward that. I am not sure that a government that is hell bent on modernity really does believe that this will be a good thing. You can push for it but whether you get it is another matter.”

Price watcher doing Irish retailers a disservice

The role of the National Consumer Agency has incensed the CSNA also. “It is very difficult when you have a government agency continually saying that the only value is the price value and that the only offering that people should be interested in is the price rather than looking at the overall package. Of course price is important but as part of the overall package. Convenience, helping people to remain as part of their community, good manners, all of these things matter as well when you are auditing a shop to determine whether a shop is providing value. Value is not merely the prices that are on the products, there are other facets to it also” said Jennings.

“It is incredibly frustrating to have the National Consumer Agency saying that people should be travelling outside the state or going to discounters within the state for the price of products. In voicing this opinion the NCA is using CSNA’s members’ money to feed this information out. We are paying our taxes to effectively tell people to go outside the State to buy products. There is no way that the NCA should be advocating that people should go outside the State to buy products. Whatever about providing information about options within the State there is no way that the NCA or any other state body should be saying that the best value is to be found outside the State,” he finishes.

 

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